CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Pope Benedict called on U.S. Catholic bishops to defend the freedom of religion.
In five speeches over a period of six months, Pope Benedict warned visiting U.S. bishops of the threats that an increasingly secularized society poses to the Catholic Church in America.
That threat is experienced especially in the areas of religious liberty, sexual morality and the definition of marriage.
Yet the pope did not advise that American Catholics withdraw from a largely hostile environment in order to preserve their values and faith.
Instead, as part of his call for a new evangelization within the Church and beyond, he urged believers to engage even more closely with wider society for the benefit of all Americans.
Pope Benedict addressed five of the 15 regional groups of U.S. bishops making their periodic ad limina visits to the Vatican, which began in late November and ended in May.
One constant was the pope's warning against the demoralizing effects of secular culture, which he said had led to a "quiet attrition" among the Church's members, who must therefore be the first targets of "re-evangelization."
Yet the pope argued that moral decay is also threatening the stability of secular society itself.
He noted what he called an "increased sense of concern on the part of many men and women, whatever their religious or political views" that a "breakdown in the intellectual, cultural and moral foundations of social life" has imperiled the "future of our democratic societies."
Therefore, he said, despite attempts to keep the Church's voice out of the public square, Catholics should insist on providing "wisdom, insight and sound guidance" to "people of good will."
Using the non-religious "language" of natural law, he explained, the Church should promote social justice by "proposing rational arguments in the public square."
This duty is incumbent on both bishops and Catholic politicians, who have a "personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time," the pope said.
He identified the issues as "respect for God's gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights."
In particular, Pope Benedict called Catholics to the front lines in defence of "that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion."
Religious freedom, he said, is especially threatened by "concerted efforts" against the "right of conscientious objection . . . to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices."
The pope's presumed reference there was to an Obama administration plan, vociferously protested by U.S. bishops, which would require that the private health insurance plans of most Catholic institutions cover surgical sterilization procedures and birth control.
American society also is served by the Church's promotion of sexual morality, Pope Benedict said.
A decline in appreciation of the indissoluble nature of marriage and the widespread rejection of responsible, mature sexual ethics "have led to grave societal problems bearing an immense human and economic cost," he said.
The pope characterized the bishops' defence of traditional marriage against proponents of same-sex unions as a matter of justice.
Opposition to same-sex unions, he said, "entails safeguarding the good of the entire human community and the rights of parents and children alike."
Although designed to serve Catholics, the Church's educational institutions also enrich society at large, the pope said.
Catholic universities, following in a tradition that professes the "essential unity of all knowledge," can be a bulwark against a current trend toward academic overspecialization.